When I was in first grade around 1990, once a week our guidance counselor would bring around a blue dolphin puppet named Duso.

It was part of a program intended to help children build problem solving skills through tapping into the better parts of their being- things like empathy, compassion, and a desire for friendship- without either invoking or excluding any additional moral codes.

As a troubled first-grader, I enjoyed it because it was a chance for Mrs. Snipe, the guidance counselor, to come in and for Mrs. Edwards, our teacher who loved singling out and humiliating students like me, to sit at the back of the class and shut up for once.

The modules even included a basic form of guided meditation.  They’d play a recording where someone would talk about going to a fantasy setting called Aquatron to interact with the characters in the Duso teaching module.

We were supposed to have this program on into second and third grades, but Berkeley County schools quietly phased out the Duso program without explaining to us why.

Today, while looking up this bit of nostalgia, I found out why this program basically vanished in the early 90s.

A number of parents were calling it “new age” and accusing the Duso program of promoting “eastern religion” and “fantasy over facts.”  One blogger even went as far as claiming that the Duso module and the kinds of things it taught were responsible for the Columbine High School shootings.

But the most consistent complaint?  That it encouraged children to find their own answers instead of depending on their parents or religious texts.

This is the kind of values dissonance we 90s kids grew up on.  We had our schools and our media telling us how infinite the possibilities were for our lives if we just believed in ourselves and trusted our own sense of right and wrong, and we had our parents and preachers looming over us saying that we were innately evil and that if we trusted ourselves to make the right decisions, it would all end badly.

A year or two later, the schools were afraid to promote anything in the way of trusting ourselves.  In fact, the guidance curriculum got so wishy-washy that it basically amounted to “just listen to your parents and teachers, sit down, and be quiet little boys and girls.”  Second grade came, and the former time slot for our guidance counselor to bring in the Duso module (which originally would have run through third grade) was replaced with “The Quiet Game,” in which the quietest student would stand at the head of the class and select the next quietest student in an endless, borning, and inane contest to be the most unquestioningly obedient.

That was also around the time my mother took my sister and I to see Carman’s “Raising the Standard” tour at the North Charleston Colosseum.  It was a lavish free concert paid for by “pro-family” groups with deep pockets that, in hindsight, had some very disturbing themes to it.  At the beginning a Jumbotron showed scenes of riots, crime, drug use, and (oh horror of horrors) homosexuality, while the crowd was encouraged to boo at the images while Carman whipped them into a frenzy about how America “needed Jesus.”  The show continued with less subtle images, including a number called “Satan, Bite the Dust” with a dramatized Western-style gunfight where a turbaned figure with a sitar was shot, while Carman casually says “You first, for false religion.”  

Looking back, that’s what it was all about.  Our parents, community “leaders,” and preachers were ready to (at least metaphorically) gun down anyone who would lead their children into “false religion,” and they seem convinced that the traps were being set for us everywhere.

The 90s may have been a period of optimism, but it was also a time when parent groups and religious media ramped up their one-sided culture war to crush anything that looked vaguely like competition to their worldview, including a harmless little dolphin puppet and his make-believe friends.  

By the late 90s, I had given up on visions of peace and on trusting my own abilities.  For a while I got caught up in the thrill of “spiritual warfare,” and I believed that the final culture war was about to unfold and that I would be on the winning side.

But maybe the lessons I learned when I was younger weren’t completely lost.  I still have the scars of learning to overcome the fear and distrust in my own judgement (and I still reckon with it even now), but I have walked away from the rigid, hateful, and distrustful tone I had beaten into me.

So maybe they were partly right.  Maybe Duso the Dolphin was taking me away from the religion of my parents.

Or maybe I would have figured it out on my own sooner or later anyway.

Whatever the case, I hope to live to see at least one generation who never has to live with such horribly mixed signals, where adults are no longer afraid of what a child’s imagination can do because a child’s imagination can conceive of something far greater than a God of cognitive dissonance.  I hope one day, children will be encouraged to dream and imagine instead of having their dreams crucified in the name of saving their souls.

A soul that cannot dream is not worth saving.  One cannot have heaven unless one can dream of it first.